Wednesday, September 9, 2009
The Bright Spots
The members of Anne’s family have turned spectacular failure in the face of incredible natural blessings into an art of the highest caliber. If managing to achieve nothing with your life despite abundant talent and mind-blowing intelligence were an Olympic sport, they would bring home the gold every year, and the lowlifes in our family tree come a dime a dozen.
The few exceptions to the rule, however, shine with particular brightness.
When my grandmother passed away in June, Generous Cousin and his wife Southern Belle invited us to their home on the outskirts of Coca Cola City.
“Seriously,” Southern Belle said. “You can come anytime you want. We’d love to have you.”
Powell and I assumed that our cousin’s wife was being polite, but before they departed Decaying State they urged us once again to make a trip down to them.
“Don’t let this be something we only talk about,” Southern Belle urged.
Powell and Generous Cousin spoke throughout the summer on the telephone, and it was arranged that my brother and I should spent Labor Day weekend in Coca Cola City. We left Mountain Town on Friday afternoon and headed south through the mountains.
Once we’d left the vicinity of the Goldlands area, the real South unfolded before us, a South unchanged by the surge of Northern migration, a South untouched by the cosmopolitan mega-cities that are hundreds of miles away.
It was rather scary at times.
“Dude, I seriously don’t want to stop,” my brother told me as we drove past ramshackle buildings and through mountain passes. During one stretch of the journey, we didn’t have cell phone reception for four hundred miles. “I’ve never actually felt scared to get out of my car before.”
Confederate flags, tacky souvenirs, and the kind of pins worn only by those with no personal dignity filled the small gas stations where we refilled and used filthy bathrooms. Just north of Coca Cola City, though, the landscape started to change. There were more buildings, modern ones, more lights, more stores, more cars. We could have been driving somewhere in the North.
“That’s what Coca Cola City is like,” a friend told me later. “It’s one spot of coolness and civilization surrounded by crap.”
Like an island of culture in a sea of barbarism, or a fortress beyond the walls of which lurk marauding savages.
Powell and I arrived late, after one o’clock in the morning, but Generous Cousin and Southern Belle had stayed up late waiting for us, and Southern Belle was only too happy to make us a delicious meal of grilled chicken, squash, zucchini, and rice.
After that we were shown about the house.
In our cousins’ living room was a piano taken out of my grandmother’s house when she died, and on the wall hung a portrait of my grandmother done in the 1970’s, when she and her family lived in Independence City.
The piece of art, an incredible family treasure (painted nonetheless by someone outside the family), captures my grandmother’s most indelible characteristics: her strength, her intelligence, her resolution, her wisdom, her majesty. It is beautiful.
After we’d been given the tour, Southern Belle took us downstairs.
“You guys will have the whole basement to use,” she said. “There’s a bathroom down here, and I can arrange for you to have separate beds so you don’t have to share—”
“No,” Powell interrupted her, shooting me a smirk. “We’ll cuddle.”
Their home was even prettier in the daytime:
The next day, Saturday, was Southern Belle’s “surprise” thirtieth birthday party. I say “surprise” because Generous Cousin was so excited about having it that he couldn’t keep his mouth shut, and a week beforehand he let spill the beans that something was in the works.
“I at least got him not to tell me who was coming,” Southern Belle lamented to me later. “I wanted something to be a surprise. It’s one thing for him to tell me that there’s a party going on, but for him to give me the guest list and the catering menu would be too much.”
The relationship between the two of them is so funny.
Generous Cousin is by nature a giving person (as indicated by his pseudonym), but his wife takes it to an entirely different level. When she does things like letting my brother borrow her and her husband’s Beatles videos despite the fact that Powell and I are eight hundred miles away, or offering to let both of us live in their home should we wish to go to school in Sprawling State, Generous Cousin says nothing.
Instead he just watches his wife’s abject craziness in silence, knowing it is insanity but loving her too much to object in the slightest. If Powell decided to transfer, he’d be living there, and Generous Cousin would dutifully accommodate him. He is more in love with his wife than almost anyone I’ve ever seen.
Southern Belle’s party was appropriately extravagant.
In the hours leading up to it, we procured food, alcohol, plastic cups, and decorations, the latter of which we strewed about the house.
Then it was time to wait for the guests. Powell slept late that day, not rising until well after noon.
Later on, he and Southern Belle waited for the guests, who soon came in abundance.
There were thirty people there by the time the sun fell, all bearing gifts for Southern Belle. Everyone mingled for several hours, and then at around nine o’clock the party moved onto the back porch to hear the live music that Generous Cousin, a local business owner, had hired for the occasion.
Generous Cousin and Southern Belle are the kind of people who are very active in the urban life of their city, who attend all of the underground shows for future mainstream acts before anyone else knows who they are, the kind of people revered by younger friends as a hip, in-the-know couple.
Generous Cousin had originally booked a semi-famous band to perform at the party, but due to an obligation they had to back out at the last minute and were replaced by a jazz group.
The singer had just begun a lively, soul-infused version of “Happy Birthday” when a sound came from the backyard.
An elderly man who I didn’t recognize was driving a red car right onto the grass from around the side of the house, eliciting gasps from the party attendees.
“What?” Southern Belle exclaimed, at first expecting a party crasher.
Then she looked harder.
“Generous,” she began. “No…”
She walked down the porch steps, her eyes wide and mouth open.
Perched on the lawn was a 1973 Triumph TR6—Southern Belle’s surprise birthday present.
The crowd rushed down behind her, swarming around the vehicle with cell phones and digital cameras as she took the driver’s seat in stunned astonishment.
Late that night, after all of the other guests had gone, Southern Belle praised the success of the party but wondered whether Generous Cousin’s mother, Crazy Religious Aunt, had ruined the event by assaulting several partygoers, including me, with drunken ramblings on religion, witchcraft, and, in my case, how I wasn’t “fucking gay.”
“I’m sure Crazy Religious Aunt annoyed some people,” I said. “But I don’t think anyone really paid attention to her. They all know she’s just an old drunk.”
“Yeah,” Southern Belle said. “I hope you’re right.”
“Southern Belle, don’t worry about her,” I said. “Things like that don’t really matter. You should focus on your blessings. You’re thirty years old and beautiful; you have a husband who adores you; you have three wonderful children; you work from your living room; you live in a gorgeous home; and you’re surrounded by friends who love you. Do you know how much that means?”
She nodded and smiled, the kind of smile that can only be made by someone so wildly fortunate that they are incapable of realizing the greatness of their gifts.
People like Southern Belle are charmed, and I’d not take away their happiness in a minute. It’s good that someone can live like that.
The next day, a Sunday, we made our first trip into Coca Cola City, where we walked through a park, ate at a fabulous Italian restaurant, explored the gay district, and had at least as much fun at a local playground as Generous Cousin’s three children.
Here are the pictures:
We left Monday afternoon, but Powell will be returning there next month, and I’ll be visiting during Christmas Break. I greatly look forward to it.